PORTLAND, Ore. ( TheStreet) -- When small breweries in the U.S. are opening faster than anyone can visit them, just about the entire country is becoming a craft beer vacation destination.
Back in May, we published a craft beer vacation itinerary that spanned the country from sunny San Diego to beer-soaked Cincinnati. Since that time, the Brewers Association craft beer industry group announced that the U.S. just saw its 3,000th brewery open for business. The growth isn't stopping there.
The Beer Institute beer industry lobbying group in Washington, D.C., noted at the beginning of the year that the U.S. had a record-high 3,699 active "permitted breweries" overseen by the Treasury Department's Alcohol Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau. According to Beer Institute analysis, the majority of the 948 permits issued last year went to brewpubs.
The Brewers Association's latest figure surpasses the 2,685 breweries that appeared on the Register of United States Breweries in 1876. If the TTB's permitted breweries all open for business by the end of the year, they'll surpass the peak of 3,286 in 1870.
Despite the fact the U.S. beer industry as a whole is shrinking -- from 55% of the overall alcohol market to 49% in 2012 -- the story of small brewers in the country is still one of growth. As overall U.S. beer production dipped 1.9% last year and fell for the fourth time in five years, small brewers saw production increase 17.9% and sales jump 20%, to $14.3 billion. As big brewers including Anheuser-Busch InBev, MolsonCoors and Diageo struggle to maintain market share, smaller brewers such as Boston Beer and the Craft Brew Alliance continue to post gains.
Even the fairly obvious beer locations have been enough to fill up not one list of craft beer vacation destinations, but follow-up lists of both regions and cities where vacationing craft beer drinkers could grab some sampling flights. Besides, why limit yourself to the 10 best brewpubs in America when there are brewpubs in all 50 states and Washington, D.C., worth visiting and a new batch popping up each year?
There are two ways we could go on this: Raise the white flag and admit there's going to be a brewery everywhere you stop on U.S. soil or keep taking reader recommendations and hitting the road. Since the former is no fun, here are five more for the latter:
Des Moines, Iowa
On the surface, beer and Iowa have a modest relationship at best. The state has 40 breweries, making it 21st in the nation and 15th per capita. The 0.4 gallons it produces per drinking-age adult ranks just 43rd overall.
But this is a state with a fast-growing beer industry that's increased its brewery count by more than 25% since 2011 and is developing quite the hub for itself in Des Moines. The city of 207,000 is home to seven breweries, giving it roughly three breweries for every 100,000 people. That's not a whole lot in the national rankings, but it definitely beats the 1.8 per 100,000 for the entire state.
We should note that one of those breweries is a member of the Rock Bottom national brewpub chain, but the other six are independent and well worth the time, starting with Court Avenue Brewing. Court Avenue is one of the few brewpubs in the state that isn't a chain, and it takes advantage of that by turning its spent grain into pretzels, brewing root and ginger beer for non-drinkers and kids and labeling each of its brews with labels used by Iowa brewers before Prohibition. Batches such as the 6.7% ABV 21st Amendment American Pale Ale, the citrusy 6.6% ABV Honest Lawyer IPA and malty, mellow brews such as Pointer Brown Ale and Blackhawk Stout flow freely from the gavel-handled taps during happy hour and on game day at Principal Park, home to the Chicago Cubs' Triple-A Iowa Cubs franchise.
The other Des Moines breweries are a mix of brewpubs and taprooms, but they're still worth seeking out. Confluence Brewing came on the scene in 2012 and got its start canning relatively simple brews such as its Farmer John's Multi-Grain Ale (beer folks know this as a Blonde), Des Moines IPA and Capital Gold lager. But a taproom selection about eight beers deep ranges from a Scottish ale it calls Grays Lakes Nessie to its 8.5% alcohol by volume Rock Dodger Double IPA. The sleeper pick of them all, however, is a Blue Corn lager that embraces the adjuncts and uses one of Iowa's finest resources (by way of New Mexico, in this case) to make a bolder, more potent take on the American pilsner.
Overall, that's a pretty excellent summary of Des Moines brewing: Simple beers done well. Upstart brewer Backpocket Brewing in nearby Coralville takes that approach very seriously and limits its slate of beers to five: A German dark lager (Dunkel), a German blonde lager, a Bavarian wheat beer, an American pale ale and a Scottish-style lager. The pizza oven, grill and dessert menu all come second to a lineup that swears strict allegiance to the Reinheitsgebot German beer purity laws that limit ingredients to water, grain, hops and yeast. Raccoon River Brewing, meanwhile, complements its pub grub, pool tables and bands with light lager, pilsner, cream ale, red ale, IPA and stout.
Don't get us wrong, though: “Traditional” and simple does not mean “bland.” Exile Brewing two years ago built its huge, industrial style beer hall and restaurant in a former soap company warehouse and laid a foundation of fun, familiar lagers and ales. Its pinup-labeled series of Bavarian wheat, honey lager, dark lager and gold lager is just the pillars of German brewing in sexier wrapping, while seasonals including IPAs, rye pale ale, pilsners and Kolsch don't stray all too far from their roots. In fact, just about the only brewery in town dabbling in sour beers, Belgian styles, citrusy IPAs or unorthodox ingredients such as ginger and agave is 515 Brewing, which prides itself on having a new rotation of beers on tap every time you walk in the door. With an emphasis on freshness and experimentation, this relative newcomer packs its huge tasting room tables not with beer lovers who aren't looking for masterpieces, but master brewers who aren't afraid to let you sample their first drafts.